Y Combinator is a waste of time—unless you do THIS

by Steli Efti
y-combinator-paul-graham-family.jpg

Is Y Combinator worth it? It’s funny: You can ask two totally different YC alumni that question and get two totally different answers, even if they both attended the same batch.

How’s that possible? Why is it that, for some startups, Y Combinator makes a difference; while for others it makes all the difference? Trust me: It’s not coincidence, luck, or privilege.

I’d know: At Close.io, we owe a huge part of our success to Y Combinator. The lessons learned, resources gained, and relationships built during YC W11 were instrumental in both our initial traction and our continued growth.

So yeah, if you ask me, Y Combinator’s worth it—if you take the right approach. Because at the end of the day, thriving in the YC environment isn’t about having the best idea, the most disruptive product, or the smartest team. It’s all about having the right attitude.

More than any other factor, your mindset determines how much value you take away from the YC experience. If you’re willing to invest the (substantial) time and energy required for Y Combinator, you owe it to yourself to take an extra 10 minutes to read this article and make sure you’re setting yourself up for success.

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YC mentality: Academics and hustlers

I’ve been a part of multiple Y Combinator batches. Once as an attendee, other times as a speaker or advisor. And every time, I was fascinated by the stark divide between attitudes.

In every batch, there are two clearly-defined startup “camps”: The Academics and The Hustlers. Both sides find value in the experience, but only one truly thrives.

Meet the Academics

The Academics view Y Combinator as “startup school.” They show up, sit down, and follow the program. Their motto is, “If I just do what I’m told, I’ll ‘graduate’ successfully.”

If there’s a dinner Tuesday at 6:00 p.m., they show up Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. If there’s a speaker Friday at 3:00 p.m., they show up Friday at 3:00 p.m. They take notes, do their homework, and follow the schedule.

And this approach works. Y Combinator’s designed to help startups, so you’ll learn a lot even if all you do is follow the program. But just “following the program” is like graduating with a “C.” Sure, you passed, but you left the majority of your education on the table.

Meet the Hustlers

The Hustlers, on the other hand, don’t leave any source of potential value untapped. They recognize YC as the resource-rich environment it is and take full responsibility for their experience. Their motto is, “We’re here to make our business successful, and we’re going to leverage every possible resource to make that happen.”

Hustlers take, learn, leverage, and ask for as much as they can. If the doors of the YC offices are open, they’re there. They know the best opportunities and most valuable introductions are rarely a part of the official “program.” After all, that program is meant to be the launching pad, not the finish line.

Channeling your inner hustler

The biggest mistake I see YC attendees make is playing it safe. If you leave the program wishing you’d spent more time with someone or gotten more help with something, that’s your fault, and no one else’s.

The YC leadership is there to help. They want you to succeed. They want you to ask questions. They want you to be proactive. But it isn’t their responsibility to make you do any of those things.

As a result, many YC attendees don’t ask questions. They aren’t proactive. And they don’t reach their full potential. But that’s good news for those that do.

Let me share three short stories to illustrate the importance of taking ownership of your YC experience; hopefully, they’ll help you make the best of yours.

“As it turns out, something opened up.”

As a relatively unknown founder, there’s practically nothing you can do to force a VC to care about your sense of urgency. I learned this lesson the hard way.

My team and I were trying to close a round of fundraising in the next two weeks, but the VC partners we needed to meet with weren’t available for at least another month.

That timeline didn’t work for us, so we sat down with Paul Graham and asked if he’d be willing to reach out to the firm on our behalf to tell them how amazing we are and urge them to prioritize our meeting.

When pg agreed, I was prepared. I pulled out my laptop, which already had a web browser open, and said, “Great! Can you do this right now?”

He did. Less than 12 hours later, we had a response from the firm, informing us they “suddenly” had an opening on their calendar in just two days.

“You’ve got better things to do, just sign it.”

Another time, I needed pg to sign a recommendation letter so I could get my visa. I’d already drafted the letter and all I needed from him was the signature. He agreed but, being the talented writer he is, wanted to re-write my draft to make it really good.

I needed that signature now, and I didn’t know how long it would take for pg (who is an incredibly busy guy) to get around to those revisions. So instead of waiting and hoping, I followed up. An hour later, I showed up at the Y Combinator office with letter and pen in hand. “Just sign it,” I said. “Just sign it. I know you’ve got better things to do.”

He did, revisions be damned, and I’m still here; so I must’ve done something right.

“These guys make shit happen.”

And yet another time, we were trying to recruit the unrecruitable by hiring Phil Freo. He wasn’t convinced, so we invited him to a YC dinner to have pg help us convince him.

He sat Phil down and said something like, “Look, these guys are weird, but they’re really effective. In fact, they’re one of the best startups in the batch, simply because they make shit happen. They’re aggressive. They’re shameless. They’re humble and open-minded, sure, but they’re intense. They don’t wait for things to happen. They make things happen.”

And to be honest? It didn’t work, at least, not at first. Although his initial answer was no, Phil ended up joining the team a few years later. I like to think pg's endorsement played a big part in that. (Thanks again, pg!)

You are your own biggest obstacle

I could share a thousand stories but, at the end of the day, it’s as simple as this: In Y Combinator (as in life), you’re going to get what you take. YC is a resource-rich environment filled with people who can and will help you; but no one there owes you anything, nor do they know what you need unless you tell them.

  • Need feedback on product design? Ask.
  • Want to get connected to investors or the press? Ask.
  • Need help recruiting? Ask.

In YC, everything you need to succeed is right in front of you (or only an introduction away). The founders who get the most value out of this program are those who know this and leverage that knowledge constantly, sometimes even shamelessly.

So ask for an unreasonable amount of office hours. Ask for off-the-wall favors. Ask for more than you expect to get.

Because remember, you’re in an environment where people want you to succeed. You aren’t doing them (or yourself) any favors by being timid. So step up, be bold, be loud, and be proactive. Know what you want, and do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Do this consistently and I promise: You’ll crush it inside and out of Y Combinator.

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Don't enjoy reading? Watch this video where I give you advice on how to make the most of Y Combinator.

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